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David and Goliath


Domenico Fetti (1588/1589-1623). Galleria dell’Accademia. Venice. 1617-1619.

The figure of the young David was treated by history as a very romantic image. David has been seen as a delicate young man, playing the lyre or accompanying Saul’s armies. He was the young squire to King Saul. Thus also Domenico Fetti depicted David. Fetti was an Italian painter of the turn of the sixteenth into the seventeenth century.

Domenico Fetti was born in Rome around 1589, and learned to know the great masters there. Later on he worked at the court of the Dukes of Mantua. He further saw many early Baroque paintings at that court, paintings from Flemish masters like Rubens, but also of Venetian masters. G3. He painted many religious scenes, among which the stories from the parables of the New Testament retained most his attention. He worked already in Mantua for Venetian patrons, for the Contarini family, and therefore might have been invited to Venice, where he arrived in 1621. The ‘David’ was painted between 1617 and 1619 for a Venetian patron of Fetti, but the work was done before the artist arrived in Venice. He could not work for long in the lagoon city however, for he died at the early age of thirty-three or thirty-four years. Domenico Fetti painted fanciful pictures in a very soft, gentle way. Most of the paintings we have of his hand were made when he was only in his twenties and he might have made more powerful pictures had he only lived longer. He absorbed many influences and could try out styles that resembled as well Caravaggio as Tintoretto.

Fetti’s David is close to a depiction by Caravaggio, but without the latter’s ferocity and power. Yet the picture is striking. We see a very young courtier, a flamboyant youth of dazzling beauty and with a touch of arrogant defiance on his face. The young man seems kind, but ready at a sudden impulsive burst of action that would be more filled with enthusiasm and carelessness than with power. David is a boy gifted with an immediate and hot temper. Fetti painted the typical Italian courtier.

The young David indolently holds an arm to his side in a gesture of firmness and with the other hand he holds a magnificently decorated but very heavy sword, which he might sway a few times but certainly not much more as it is too long and too heavy for his age. This sword evokes in the viewer the impression that the boy might have a great calling. David would indeed become the great warrior and king, the founder of the royal glory of Israel. Domenico Fetti painted David as if the youth were aware of that and telling to the viewer, ‘I am young and boisterous, but I will do great deeds. Beware of me.’ David was the armour bearer of Saul, so the long sword may just be the king’s main weapon. David brings them and guards them, but they are for Saul to brandish.

Fetti painted a portrait. But for a dashing figure like the young David, he had to use a presentation that was also daring, a new image as indolent as his personage. So Fetti used a new poise in portraiture and painted David sideways and half in the dark. He could concentrate the light and thus the attention of the viewer almost solely on the face of the boy. The picture is very much painted in Caravaggio’s shrill contrasts between light and dark, so much so that we only see a small curved band in bright colours, whereas all the rest of the picture is hulled in darkness. Such views always give the impression as if the hero appears from out of the centuries. Fetti also painted to great realism, probably using a young sitter as a model, like Caravaggio.

Domenico Fetti painted the dash of the young man in details of his dress. David wears a hat with marvellously coloured plumes and the plumes are set high on his head. They show the daring of the young man. David wears a white collar like a garland of delicate flowers around his neck. His sleeves are fanciful and so are the breeches around his knees. David is depicted as a valiant knight. He is very much armed and besides the heavy sword a long, silver-decorated dagger hangs on his hips. David’s looks are somewhat effeminate, full and sensual, but David sends an affirming and strong, unwavering glance in the direction of the viewer. That glance changes the impression the viewer has from considering the David as only a young insolent boy to a soldier knight that can be vicious, with sudden reactions of cunning violence. Fetti’s David needs only an occasion to show his great deed and come forward from the mass of the many courtiers to the foreground, to recognition as one of the best and a future challenger of the king himself.

Saul and David

The Philistines prepared for a major war with the Israelites. They assembled at Socoh in Judah. Saul and the Israelites also assembled and pitched camp in the valley of the Terebinth. The Philistines occupied the high ground on one side and the Israelites stood on the high ground on the other side, in opposing battle lines.

A champion stepped out from among the Philistines. His name was Goliath, from Gath. He was a giant of a man, six cubits and a span tall. He wore a heavy breastplate of scale-armour made of bronze and he had bronze greaves on his legs. A heavy scimitar was slung over his shoulders. He wore a spear as thick as a weaver’s beam and the head of the spear was of solid iron. A shield-bearer walked in from of him. Goliath challenged the Israelites to choose a man and fight it out with him. The stake of the duel would be high, no less than one people becoming the servants to the other. Saul and the Israelites were dismayed and terrified at the words of Goliath.

David just then arrived on the battlefield. His father Jesse had sent him to ask for news of his brothers who had joined Saul in the campaign. When David heard of Goliath’s challenge he spoke out. He asked who that uncircumcised brute was to challenge the armies of the Israelites and what the reward would be for killing him. These words were reported to Saul so Saul sent for David. Saul saw that David was still only a young boy and no warrior. But David retorted that he looked after his father’s sheep and that whenever a lion or a bear came and took sheep from the flock he would follow the animal to snatch the sheep out of its jaws. David said he would seize lion or bear by the beard and batter it to death. He told that Yahweh would also deliver him from the clutches of the Philistine. Saul then accepted David as his champion. He dressed him in his own armour with a breastplate and a bronze helmet. Saul buckled his own sword to David. David tried to walk in these, but he could not. He said he was not used to armour, so he took them off again and confronted Goliath without protection.

David took his stick in one hand. He selected five smooth stones from the riverbed and put them in his shepherd’s bag. Then with his sling in hand, he approached the Philistine. Goliath and David insulted each other, as was the custom before a duel. The Philistine cursed David by his gods. David said he had come in the name of Yahweh Sabaoth, the God of Israel that the Philistine had challenged. He told Goliath he would kill him, cut off his head, and give his corpse as well as the corpses of the Philistines to the birds in the skies and to the wild beasts, for Yahweh’s glory. Then David put his hand in his bag, took out a stone, slung it and struck the Philistine on the forehead. The stone penetrated Goliath’s head and the giant fell heavily on the ground. David ran to Goliath, stood over him, seized the Philistine’s sword, pulled it out of its scabbard, killed Goliath with it and cut off his head.

When the Philistines saw that their champion was dead they all fled in disarray. The Israelites pursued them and killed them on their flight so that the Philistine dead lay all along the road from Shaaraim to Gath and Ekron. The Israelites plundered the Philistine camp. David took the Philistine Goliath’s head to Jerusalem. He took the giant’s weapons in his own tent however.

After the battle, David was presented to Saul again. Jonathan, Saul’s son, then felt an instant affection for David. He loved David like his very self. He gave David his cloak, his armour, even his bow and sword. Saul and Jonathan kept David with them.

David slaying off the Head of Goliath

Guido Reni (1575-1642). Private Collection Dr. Gustav Rau – Germany. 1606/1607.

Guido Reni was a painter of Bologna. His gather was a musician. He began to paint around the age of ten and first learned his art at the school of Denys Calvaert, a Flemish painter that worked in Bologna. He joined the Academy of Bologna when he was twenty. This was the Academy founded by the Carracci family of painters and the teachings of that academy would form his style. One of his co-students at the Academy was Domenichino. Guido Reni stayed faithful to the classical academicism of the Carracci academy. He continued to live in Bologna but he was also frequently in Tome and worked for the Popes, in particular for Pope Paul V Borghese. Annibale Carracci died in 1609, Ludovico Carracci in 1619, so Guido Reni remained as the main painter of Bologna then and he was a worthy successor to the great family of the Carraccis. He had learned from Denys Calvaert, from Ludovico Carracci, and also from Caravaggio, whose works he knew from 1602 on when he often worked and lived in Rome. He had been invited to Rome by Cardinal Paolo Emilio Sfondrato. Guido Reni died of a bad fever in 1642, leaving a large workshop but also many debts, although he was very famous and charged high prices for his paintings, because he was a passionate gambler.

David threw a stone on goliath’s front with the might and accuracy of his sling. Goliath now lies down and David heaves over his body, ready to slay off Goliath’s head. In this composition, Guido Reni used strong vertical and horizontal lines, as Goliath lies on the ground and David towers above him. The giant in the picture is not Goliath but David. David holds the Philistine sword with both hands so high that Reni only painted it somewhat further than the heft. The painting is partly in the style of Caravaggio. It is still an academic painting of classical art from Bologna in the style of the Carraccis also, for Reni showed only the two characters in the scene. Bolognese painters of the Baroque painted usually just a few figures in their pictures so that the scene would be limpid and could easily be recognised. But Reni also applied Caravaggist contrasts of light and dark, as can be seen on the harness of Goliath. He also painted a dark background but differently from Caravaggio Reni showed a wide, low landscape and an imposing sky behind David. The sky is heavy, laden with dark, ominous, stormy clouds. One may sense the presence of God in these clouds, or of fate, as often God darkens the sky and lets winds blow when he is at work. The horizon is low so that David can tower over the earth and in front of the divine elements of nature. We see a wide plain with a few hills on right and left and between these the Israelian and Philistine armies confront each other.

Goliath fell on his face according to the scriptures. Reni shows the man still grasping at the wound in the front above his eyed. Goliath’s helmet has been torn away and a light that seems to come from above, from David, shows his glimmering, polished armour. There is no steel around his neck however, and here David will strike. Guido Reni painted masterly the shadows and light patches of that armour. By this prowess we know that Reni had extraordinary talent. The artist then contrasted the dark, brutal menace of the Philistine warrior with the red colours of cunning. David is only clad in a red tunic, hanging carelessly around him and held only by a knot at this hip. David’s sling still hangs in this tunic. Reni showed David holding Goliath down with one leg, but David had probably that knee on the Philistine only to better reach the man’s neck. Reni marvellously painted the red tunic above the steel-grey of Goliath. The chiaroscuro in the folds of David’s tunic is fine and exact. Reni used here many shades, tones and intensities of the blood red that will later mark the scene. So many painters showed the red blood of Goliath everywhere; Guido Reni hinted only at it in the tunic of David. This is an element typical of the control over emotions that the Bolognese painters had learned from the Carraccis.

David is the young man of the Bible. Guido Reni painted him like an Apollo. David has a fine, slim body on which the heavy muscles have not yet been so trained as to stand out imposingly. The body is hairless and well –proportioned. David has boyish, short hair on his head but Reni makes him look down at his victim so that the viewer cannot make well out David’s traits.

Guido Reni made one of the most classical and now traditional pictures of the scene of David and Goliath. He chose a moment before David slew off Goliath’s head and in that was his originality, for most other pictures show David carrying off Goliath’s severed head. He made a very Baroque picture, dedicated to the spur and rapidity of the moment. And he made a very Bolognese painting in that he represented just the two figures toweringly close to the viewer. He used light, contrasting colours and showed the movement of the slaying of Goliath better than most other painters of his generation. The scene evokes in the viewer swift movement and that vision remains impregnated in the viewer.

We may have grown used too much to such pictures to still be impressed by ‘David and goliath’ of Guido Reni. When we pass by such a painting in a museum we are impressed by David’s overpowering image, which is only diminished by his youth. But then we recognise easily the means that Reni used to evoke surprise and we respect that. We know now how such effects can be obtained by placing low horizons and by placing the figures high in the frame and not in their entirety so that the viewer feels close and small. Still, in the times of Guido Reni such effects were not common in paintings and it was a main feature of Baroque to seek such impressions in viewers. Guido Reni‘s ‘David slaying off Goliath’s Head’ is a fine example of the techniques and style elements discovered by painters and now lavishly used to surprise viewers. It is a fine painting in composition, assemblage of colours and presentation of the content of the theme.

David and Goliath

Michelangelo Merisi called Caravaggio (ca. 1570/1571-1610). Museo Galleria Borghese – Rome. Around 1605-1610.

Caravaggio’s ‘David and Goliath’ is a very peculiar painting. It is dark, sad, horrible, magnificent and gripping at the guts of any viewer. Out of a very sombre, black night, into a scarce light – maybe of a campfire of the Israelite army – steps the young David holding goliath’s head to show it once more to the amazed soldiers of the Jews. In the strange orange light only the essentials are seen: a hairless puberty body, a young face expressing aversion and determination and another tortured, black-bearded, ugly, fiercely decapitated head. And yes, there is the blade of the sword that did the job, shown in a lower corner.

Michelangelo Merisi called Il Caravaggio painted a picture of essentials only. There is no background but a uniform black. A feeble light comes from the lower left, just enough to show us the mastery of anatomy of the artist. David’s body is of a young Apollo, perfect, pure, unblemished, strong but without the muscles of a warrior. It is simply healthy and new. The boy steps forward and brings the head of Goliath towards the viewer, thrusting the horribly gasping face out of the canvas and to the viewer. The head still gasps at being slaughtered. This is the gasp of sudden death, but life only stands still; death is not a state; it is just he sudden stopping of breathing and thinking and feeling and laughing. Laughter there was, laughter form the black-haired brute at the youth that dared to challenge a giant warrior like Goliath. That youth now holds far from him the long black hair of the brute, unwilling to otherwise touch a sordid object. The face of the boy shows the loathing for the object, not for the man; it shows the abhorrence for the lifeless dirty face. Therefore the head is kept far with outstretched arm so that it does not touch the flawless body of the Apollo and so that the blood that is still oozing out of the head not dirties the boy.

The face of the youth also expresses respect and sadness. The boy seems to regret having killed. The killing was maybe not necessary and the killer always – more than all spectators – feels linked to the dead. This the boy’s kill; the boy has taken the life. The boy understands that now, better than any one else, and with the comprehension comes the regrets. But it is tool ate? The past events of life cannot be undone – and should not, for Goliath was a Jew killer of a Philistine. But Goliath still was a human being. Goliath would not have repented nor regretted killing David; but David is sensible and intelligent and he regrets. The life of Goliath is gone and it was David who took it. So youth always kills age. And of course, age kills youth for once, with time passing, David will have a face like Goliath’s.

The date of Caravaggio’s painting is uncertain. The work may date from somewhere between 1605 and 1610. Dates most offered are between 1606 and 1607. If that dating were exact, the painting would have been made on the Island of Malta. Michelangelo Merisi called the Caravaggio had fled there from Rome over Naples. He entered the service of the Hospitaller knights of Saint John the Baptist in their stronghold port of La Valetta of Malta. But the painting may also have been made after Caravaggio’s return from Malta, which happened in 1608, when he fled from the same knights that had made them one of theirs and for whom he had made powerful portraits of their Grand Master Alof de Wignacourt. The ‘David and Goliath’ we discover may have been painted in Sicily or in Naples, from where he tried to reach a ship that might bring him back to Rome. Then this picture may have been one of the very last Caravaggio made.

We have several other pictures of the theme of ‘David and Goliath’ by Caravaggio. One is in the Prado of Madrid, another in the Kunsthistorisches Museum of Vienna. These works do not have the poignancy and immediacy of the picture in the Galleria Borghese. The other pictures seem softer, more decorative – if that word could be used for Caravaggio -, painted with more distance to the theme, with a colder contemplation of the subject. In the ‘David and Goliath’ of the Galleria Borghese we feel us to be really inside the scene, no just spectators. We feel the intimate connection of the artist with the drama and his expression of the theme of death. Caravaggio had witnessed decapitations in Rome.

One of the executions he might have seen was of a noblewoman, Beatrice Cenci (1577-1599). Beatrice Cenci was the daughter of a rich and powerful man, Francesco Cenci. He was a violent man and imprisoned Beatrice and her stepmother in the Castle of Petrella Salto, near Rieti. He continuously abused his family. With the consent of her stepmother and of her two brothers, Beatrice Cenci murdered her father in 1598. She was taken a prisoner after that at the order of Pope Clement VIII. Beatrice was decapitated in Castel Sant’Angelo in September 1599, before a large crowd of people among whom might have been Caravaggio. The painter could have learned there how a head was cut off and all the gruesome anatomical details of such an act. We know how Beatrice Cenci looked like, for Guido Reni (1575-1642) made a portrait of her that is now in the Palazzo Barberini of Rome. I29.

Death accompanied Caravaggio often on his travels and in his works. He travelled only to escape prison. He painted Christ’s sufferings, torture and death. He painted the death of Jesus’ mother, the martyrdom of Saint Catherine and Saint Matthew, the sacrifice of Isaac, the torments of Saint Jerome. He showed men in an inn looking at a barber extracting a tooth from the rotten mouth of one of them. He showed Judith cutting through the throat of Holofernes. He painted Salome wearing the head of John the Baptist on a platter. He painted the crucifixion of Saint Andrew, the crucifixion of Saint Peter, the entombment of Saint Lucia and the entombment of Jesus. So many horrible scenes of violence, torture, self-torture, and savagery accompanied Caravaggio always and especially once he had to leave Rome.

Michelangelo Merisi was born in 1571, probably in Milan. His parents had fled the town of a plague epidemic so early after his birth and settled in a small village near Milan called Caravaggio, that he was known his life long for that village. The family returned soon to Milan, to flee it again from the plague in 1576. Caravaggio’s father may have died from the plague in 1577, when Michelangelo was six years old. He stayed with his mother in Milan and in Caravaggio. He became an apprentice to the painter Simone Peterzano in Milan. His mother died in 1590 and the twenty-year old Caravaggio voyaged to Rome. He worked for various commissioners there, made paintings for churches and palaces. Times were light and happy then and Caravaggio made also nicer, mythological scenes. But he had a bad temper and fate pursued him. He was arrested a first time for a short while only in 1603 for having written defamatory poems. He was arrested in 1605 for illegally wearing arms and in 1606 he may have killed a man – alone or with a friend – at a dispute over a ball game. He had to run from the Papal soldiers then, away from Rome. He travelled to Naples. In 1607 already he arrived on the Island of Malta. There he worked for the Grand Master of the Maltese Order, was even made a Knight of Malta, but excluded from the Order again in 1608. He fled from Malta to Sicily and then back to Naples. He was wounded in the face in Naples in 1609. In the year after, in 1610, he was looking for a ship near Naples, in Porto Ercole, to take him back to Rome. But he died on the beaches of Porto Ercole, either of a sickness or killed by hirelings or bandits. Little is know of Caravaggio’s death, but he was merely forty years old.

The ‘David and Goliath’ of the Galleria Borghese may be a double auto-portrait. The traits of Goliath certainly resemble Caravaggio’s own. And the artist also painted a few times young men to his resemblance. We have pictures of faces that are presumably portraits of him. These also resemble the face of David. So we see in ‘David and Goliath’ of the Galleria Borghese a tortured head, from which the blood is all dripping away. The head cries out at the sad, horrible events of a savage life of violence and at the ineffectiveness of it all. The boy looks with melancholy and pity at what has become of the mature man, unable to change anything and of course also unwilling to halt fate. The act needed to be done. Caravaggio was much in travel during the time he made this picture of ‘David and Goliath’. He always used sitters to model for him. He may not have had any other model during his travels but himself. Therefore David and Goliath may well have been Caravaggio at different ages. Some have called this picture Caravaggio’s testament. David is Caravaggio and Goliath is Caravaggio. The viewer may not like Goliath, but that is what Caravaggio, the man, had become in his own eyes.

The painter Caravaggio used parsimonious but very effective means of painterly design for his picture. He only used black colour, yellow-flesh and silvery white. The background is completely black. Caravaggio needed no background, no decoration and certainly not a silly superfluous landscape. Such details would not have added anything to the power of expression and could only have distracted the viewer. David and Goliath are of course painted in the colours of their flesh, with just a little, almost unperceivable orange hue here and there. Goliath’s head is also mainly black, covered with long black hair, wit ha black mouth and heavy black beard. Like Rembrandt later, Caravaggio surprises with marvellous lead-white in David’s shirt. With little means, Caravaggio shows the long black and grey lines that hang down with the shirt and that make the shirt a silvery, noble gown that glimmers in the light.

Caravaggio used a traditional pyramid composition like in so many portraits. The blade of the sword, even only shown in a small piece, balances in this composition Goliath’s head. The pyramid does not go all way to the top of the frame. Some space had to be left at the top to bring more weight onto Goliath’s head, to push the composition down and thus to enhance the effect of gloom and sadness. So, although a very expressive picture, Caravaggio naturally, intuitively probably, came to a very classic representation of portraits.

The ‘David and Goliath’ of Michelangelo Merisi called the Caravaggio is a very remarkable picture. Caravaggio applied the contrasts between dark and light to unusual expressiveness and we are always in awe at the skills of realistic detail and of depicting force by this painter. ‘David and Goliath’ was a theme that the artist knew well, and that in the end may for him have represented his very life of a man torn between normality, happiness and youth on the one side and dark despair on the other.

The Triumph of David

Nicolas Poussin (1594-1665). Dulwich Picture Gallery – Dulwich (London). 1631-1633.

Nicolas Poussin was a French painter of the beginning of the seventeenth century. He was born in France but he went to Rome in 1624 when he was around thirty years old and he never really returned to France. His work was quite appreciated by the French Royal court but Poussin could very well paint in Rome, where apparently he felt artistically more stimulated, and ship his paintings to France. Poussin was a Baroque painter but he treated mostly examples from classical antiquity and he was a very French, rational painter who applied the techniques of his art in a very self-conscious way so that he has often received the label of being very academic. Poussin made a picture of the ‘Triumph of David’ in 1631 to 1633 while he was in Rome. We see David advancing in a procession, led by two heralds that proclaim his glory blowing trumpets. David wears Goliath’s head on a spike and people look in awe but also happily and curiously at the spectacle.

Nicolas Poussin lived in Rome. The Roman emperors and generals held triumphs in that city after they had won important battles or conquered new foreign land. Poussin may have had the idea of a picture of such a triumph from that association between Roman triumphal procession and a mention in the Bible that David took the Philistine’s head and brought it to Jerusalem. Poussin situated the scene in Rome. Public triumphs were not usual in Jerusalem, even though heroes like David were probably also publicly acclaimed when they entered towns. David will not have worn Goliath’s head beyond the battlefield but Roman generals carried with them in their triumphal procession the enslaved princes they had conquered and imprisoned. Poussin elaborated on this idea.

The picture is drawn with unusual skill and painted in the soft, pastel hues that we are accustomed to find in other pictures of Nicolas Poussin. Poussin liked soft orange and yellow hues and we see those amply in ‘David’s Triumph’ too. Poussin used a few blue areas, balanced and placed symmetrically on the canvas. There is blue in the woman on the left, in the figure of the man with a beard on the right and also on the seated woman of the middle. We will later explain that these figures have particular meaning in the painting and Poussin made them more visible for spectators by contrasting the blue of their tunics with the background of orange-yellowish colours. Poussin used a very theatrical setting for David’s triumph. David passes before a temple and we find mostly strong vertical and horizontal directions in this architecture. That feature supports the idea of a long procession that will pass before an audience. Poussin also made the group of women in the lower middle sit down, to show better the advancing heralds and the figure of David.

The various groups of people in the scene are Romans, clad in Roman tunics and the view is before a temple with Greek or Roman columns. They represent the different feelings that spectators may have felt at a procession of David and Goliath.

On the extreme right a soldier on horseback shows the advancing procession. Here is the soldier that urges to advance to advance to victory. On the top right, a man in red tunic similarly has a movement to advance in his arm. This group of people urges to attack, and justifies David’s killing of Goliath. The feelings shown are of vengeance, of conquest and of warriors’ impetuosity.

The group on the lower right expresses surprise. The bearded man dressed in a blue tunic holds his hands in wonder. The woman dressed in green points to the scene of David, drawing the attention of her baby at the extraordinary scene of David passing by, holding high the head and curbing his back under the weight. While the woman points she also leads the viewer’s eyes back to the gruesome, ugly and monstrous head that is the bewilderment of the audience.

The women in the lower middle express happiness. The danger of the Philistines, of the barbarians that threatened Jerusalem, has been averted. Rome had been thus relieved many times when the consuls defeated the German hordes. A woman in blue dress salutes David with uplifted hand and thus honours him.

The group on the lower left seems to express indifference. Here are the sceptics. Some of the people here turn their backs to the approaching David and they ignore the advancing trumpets. A woman in blue points to the skies, not to David at all. She may attract the attention of her group to something else but David, and she may imply that David merely realised God’s design. When we follow her finger, we come to the façade of the temple and just above the lower left group we see a woman fleeing behind a column. She may go to another scene in the upper part, but the artist who made the picture may also have indicated her disinterest as she disappears behind a column.

In the top part of the painting are two groups of people. The left group stands with presents and fruit and documents to recognise David’s deed, ready to enter him for eternity in the history of Israel. We would have expected King Saul in this group. These people officially honour David and they seem to wait stoically David’s arrival. This group is static, solemn, waiting in dignity as if they were members of the Roman senate.

To the right we see awe, fear and outright disturbance. Everybody is gesticulating with movements of arms and bodies. The lines suggested by arms and bodies go in all directions. There are exclamations of fear, of lauding the Gods and of immediate emotions.

Nicolas Poussin thus made a painting in which he painted David advancing amidst a whole spectrum of human emotions. It is a picture of these emotions and Poussin imagined a circle of the scale of feelings that could have been evoked in the minds of the spectators at David’s feat. Poussin of course also painted a scene of the multitude of feelings that readers of the Bible and of the feelings that the spectators of pictures of David’s slaying of Goliath might experience. The viewers of pictures thus may recognise themselves inside the picture.

David walks in the middle. He seems to be unperturbed by what goes around him. He is oblivious of the people. He strides forward simply and directly. He does not look around. He is not really in symbiosis with the people of Jerusalem. Not one of the six groups of people seems to be linked to another and also not with David. No individual points to another group. No person looks at another group. That is the tension in the picture, which makes of this painting a strange depiction that evokes a peculiar feeling of unease in any viewer. Something is wrong with this picture. There is no unity of emotion, no unity of people, no symbiosis, no common understanding, and no social warmth. Eyes and gestures are sometimes directed at David but David ignores these. He too remains isolated. This tension throws a very cold atmosphere over Poussin’s painting and lowers the viewer’s attraction to the scene.

The isolation of the groups and lack of unity may have been an error of the artist. It is hard to believe however that a painter with the skills and intelligence of a Nicolas Poussin would have made such an error. Poussin knew extremely well how to create unity of action and of form in a painting. He would have linked the figures in one way or other and would have ensured that David did not remain isolated in his triumph. The painting may not have bene painted by Nicolas Poussin however, and some doubts indeed have been cast on its origins as it is not mentioned in early records of Poussin’s works. U14.

Another interpretation might be that Nicolas Poussin has deliberately shunted unity of depiction from this work. Then he may have wanted to represent the theatre of human emotions around the bible story in a detached way. He may have wanted to show ironically how over the centuries David’s act of killing Goliath has given rise to hollow, now very conventional, demonstrations of feelings. Other elements of the canvas support this interpretation. Poussin placed the scene before a temple with Roman columns, as we might expect from the background of a Greek tragedy. In such plays also appear choirs that exclaim and explain the feelings of the audience, or of society, at the main act of the play. The various groups of the people in the painting seem to represent the expression of such feelings, in the same way of the choirs of Greek tragedies. Choirs always sound somewhat artificial, detached. Choirs are spectators that merely regard the tragedy uninvolved as from a mirror, separated from the action and contemplating it to draw conclusions.

Poussin painted a tragedy as he might have it imagined staged in a Roman theatre. And indeed, there is something very theatrical in the way David walks stiffly over the stage. It is as if he were afraid of dropping the head and thus spoil his entrance on the theatre scene. David advances in the midst of the emotions, unperturbed and oblivious of the world around him, driven not by his own feelings or interpretations, but driven like an automaton by the Gods. An un-committing smile only is on his lips but it is a private smile and almost a quirk of his face.

Nicolas Poussin then even indicated specifically that six feelings are represented. In the lower left corner Poussin painted a small block of stone with six rectangular stone stubs, one stub for each emotion represented. Did Poussin reflect on which emotions could be aroused by David’s act, and did he imagine that mainly these six existed?

Nicolas Poussin made a painting that evokes many feelings in the viewer. The colours are warm and balanced. The outline forms of the groups are symmetrically positioned so that the viewer is made at ease and pleasured by the apparent orderliness of the scene. The viewer is reminded of the logic of a Greek play. The viewer is invited to go over the splendid and harmonious variety of hues and over the wealth of chiaroscuro in the folds of the tunics of the Roman citizens. Poussin painted every figure differently, in poise, and with another face. The viewer may be affected by the many different emotions depicted and find interest in discovering the emotions. Nicolas Poussin thus made a picture that is nice to look at, and nice to discover in its many details. He introduced a tension however that brings the viewer quite at unease after some time and that tension leads to more intellectual reflection. The viewer senses that the painter tried to express a weird situation. That piques the interest of the viewer and leads him or her to a more profound reflection not only on the painting and to what the art of painting should do to viewers, but also on the Bible story of David and Goliath. Such evoking of all the senses of the spectator is the mark of a great artist, whether it was Nicolas Poussin or not.

Other Paintings:

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